Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Son, Lateef

Lateef was born on October 27, 1972.  He was a cute little boy—looked more like a little girl really with a huge mane of hair which I kept in braids during the week and let loose on the weekends.   He was a laid back child.  He went through the typical colic of the early days but once we got past that, he was a good boy.  I remember that he was in no great hurry to walk, read or tie his shoes.  Someone called me one day and asked what I was doing.  “I’m giving Lateef walking lessons”, I said.  He was 13 months old and I really thought he should be walking by then.  He was the type of baby that if you left him on the bed to run get something, you’d find him in the same spot when you returned—you didn’t have to worry about him turning over or falling off of the bed—that was too much effort.  Later I would try to teach him to read using flash cards before he entered kindergarten but finally, I just let him advance at his own level.  I was the typical mother of a first child—driven….Somehow he survived that. Children are, indeed, resilient.

Lateef always had a lot of friends.  He was happy go lucky and loved to make jokes and play pranks.  His teachers loved him but consistently tried to work with us to find ways to keep him in his seat during class.  He was just all over the place.  As he progressed from middle school to high school he became more of a challenge.  Ted and I both worked at stressful corporate jobs.  We were so tired at the end of a day that it was difficult to keep our attention on what was going on with the kids—we did our best. 

Lateef was responsible for keeping an eye on his little sister, Rashida who was 3 ½ years younger than him.  It seemed like we were always punishing him for some infraction.  First we’d just take away stuff from his room—his phone (this was before cell phones) , his TV, his video games.  We found that he could be sitting in an empty room and still find a way to amuse himself—talking to himself, singing,  later rapping, whatever.   These punishments didn’t seem to be having an effect.  So we came up with the idea of having him write us essays on whatever rule he had broken.  If he did not watch out for his sister, he’d write us an essay on responsibility.  If he broke curfew, he’d write us an essay on trust.  Bingo!  We found that these assignments kept him really engaged.  He tried to get better and better at writing—to make us laugh so that we’d let him out of his room.  One time he entitled an essay “Notes From A Prisoner” bemoaning his fate in his small, cell-like room and used tap water to sprinkle on the paper so it looked like tears.  Little did we know that these assignments would lead to a career in journalism.  He loved going to school but I used to joke with him that school was his social outlet—it was really not all about the learning.

 He would tease the teachers unmercifully.  At the beginning of sophomore year, a new teacher Mr. Throckmorton was taking role.  Lateef thought his last name was unusual so he started making rhymes of the teacher’s name.  Mr. Throckmorton settled the class down and continued roll call.  When he got to “Lateef Mungin” and Lateef raised his hand, Mr. Throckmorton looked at Lateef with a twinkle in his eye and said “Oh, yes – there is a God”.   As if to say, you have the nerve to make fun of my name? They were fast friends from that day on.  As Lateef’s youngest daughter, Ami, grew up it became apparent that she would be much like her father. Lateef called me one day and in conversation he told me that Ami just couldn’t remain in her seat and that she was always making her classmates laugh—I said “Hmmm that sounds familiar—Good luck with that”.  We both chuckled—me because I was done with that, and Lateef because he knew what was coming.

Ted always made sure that Lateef had some kind of part time job.  I was of the mindset that we should probably let Lateef focus on school, but Ted insisted that our son wouldn’t put more time into studies anyway, so better to keep him busy.  He was right.  Much later, Lateef would thank Ted for raising him with a strong work ethic.   Lateef was always interested in music and he and his friends were constantly practicing dance moves and rap lyrics.  Sometimes it was impossible to talk to him without watching him moving arms and legs to some music that was playing in his head!

So, Lateef graduated high school (he told me later that he was sure they wouldn’t really call his name at the ceremony) and went to the local junior college.  We thought he wasn’t mature enough to leave home yet. So after two years in junior college, he left California to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga.  Just one year showed us that he was still not mature enough as he partied his way straight out of that school.  We think he spent more time at Spellman (the girls school across the street) than at Morehouse.  So we brought him back to California and he took a break from school and found a job. He worked for AmeriCorps and became interested in teaching local gardening to children in Oakland.  He took up caoepeira (a Brazilian dance/maritial arts form) and grew dreds.  He was becoming our organic boy.  Years later, he cut his hair, went back to school and graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in journalism.  He found work at the Marin Independent Journal and shortly, Atlanta called and he followed to a job at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

He met Aileen Dodd at the AJC and they married in October of 2002.  In addition to sharing a deep love for one another, they also shared a love for journalism and were both very invested in their children and family life.  After a few years, Lateef left the AJC to work for CNN as an editor on the night shift.  He loved his work and his family and though Ted and I would try to talk to him about making sure he got his rest, it was apparent that he would oftentimes function on too little sleep so that he could attend basketball games, cheerleading meets, plays, and dance recitals.

He was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy—he never met an enemy.  People just took to him. He was a peace keeper and a placater--sometimes that could really get on my nerves when I was trying to be serious with him! With Lateef, good always prevailed over evil.   I remember once he was riding on a subway train on a visit to New York.  Kids were bullying a boy and Lateef got into the frey and just grabbed the young boy and got off the train with him in tow.  He was always first to help someone—a good trait but one that could make a mother really fearful. 

Here we are at February 24, 2014.  Lateef was healthy again. He had recovered from brain surgery 9 months ago and was feeling really good.  Yes, still a bit over weight but making a conscious decision to work on that by exercising more and watching his diet.

Five months after his surgery, on October 1, 2013 he’d sent me the following email:

“Hey mom ... sis
Just wanted to say I love yall for an endless list of reasons but just to pick a few yall were sooooooooooo great to me when I was sick -- showing up out of no where to be at my hospital bed, helping my family. I really could not have made it without the both of you. Truly.Since May I have not smoked at all and though I am chewing nicorette like a crazy man, I still have not smoked. And I really want to get a handle on my health. Now for the help.

Ever since I left the hospital I've wanted to address my weight. But I wanted to wait until I get back to work for a while before changing my diet. I am researching diets now-- and plan to start something around my birthday. Any ideas on something that is not too drastic but will take weight off in a responsible way. I want to lose 20 pounds responsibly and have enough energy to do nights. I was leaning towards something called chuice .. Drinking that for two meals a day -- and then doing one meal a day -- with exercise.

Let me know if you have any suggestions”

He was moving in the right direction.  He was on the right track. And then this happens.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Hospital

So I made it to Atlanta on Monday afternoon, February 24, 2014.  Lateef was home alone and we got to spend an hour or two catching up before we had to pick Jade up from basketball practice.  It was fun.  I didn’t get too much alone time with my son, where he was totally focused on our conversation (every mother’s lament) so I considered this precious time.  He had undergone surgery for a benign brain tumor 9 months before that and though his recovery was rocky, he was now back at the CNN Wires desk and loving his job more than ever.  I asked him how he felt.  He told me that his brain felt sharp again and that he thought his stories were better than ever.  Then he said “Let’s not jinx it—let’s talk about something else.” So we did.

We picked Jade up and later, Aileen came in with Ami.  We had dinner together and Lateef started getting ready for work.  When he came downstairs, he was dressed in a dark suit with a beautiful blue shirt (his favorite color) and striped tie.  He looked fantastic.  I remember saying to him: “You look wonderful.  Your work group is going to stand up and give you a round of applause because you look so good! Do you always go to work like this?”  He said “No, but I should!”.  I gave him a hug, he kissed Aileen and went off to work in my car—happy.  I am so happy that the last thing I said to him was loving and complimentary.  I am glad that I was not harping on him for something he shouldn’t have done or could be doing better.  No regrets there.

At about midnight, the door of my room opened.  Aileen came in, and turned on the light. She was talking on the phone and her eyes were as big as saucers.  I could hear from her tone of voice that there was an emergency and I knew with every bone in my body that something was wrong with Lateef.  I threw off the covers and started putting on my clothes—no questions asked. 

Lateef had suffered seizures at his desk and they had taken him to Grady Memorial Hospital by ambulance.  We got there somehow and were finally allowed to see him in emergency.  He was hooked to so many machines and he was sedated—it was scary.  My heart was somewhere in my throat—certainly not where it was supposed to be.  They told us that he had probably just eaten and that he had aspirated food into his lungs.  There was some lung damage and he would be moved to Intensive Care.  As these arrangements were being made, Aileen and I stood by his bedside—each clutching one of his hands.  I did not know how bad it was at that time but I started thinking about him as a little boy and about how much I loved him, just willing him to get better.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

From North Carolina to Georgia

And so we had a funeral—a celebration of Ted’s life really. It was difficult—more than difficult, but we got through it.  Friends and family attended Ted’s funeral, bought food, sent condolences and supported us in ways too many to number.  So many attended Ted’s funeral.  He would have been so happy.  He typically underestimated the impact he had upon people.

Much of the planning had already been done.  I knew exactly what Ted wanted, his obituary had been written months before and so, when we met with the minister to discuss funeral specifics, there weren’t a lot of blanks to be filled in.  My minister wanted to know something about Ted. Though I was an active member of my church, Ted did not attend so the minister asked many questions—trying to get to know Ted in anticipation of his eulogy—looking for his essence. I remember it like it was yesterday—Lateef wanted the minister to know that even though Ted did not attend church and was not a religious man, he was a good and honest man who did believe in a higher power—he told the minister how instrumental Ted was in his life and the lives of others and directed him to the video that Rashida had put together to get another dimension of this man we were mourning. The video became an integral part of the minister’s speech.  Happy Feelings became the theme of Ted’s funeral.

The picture below shows our family at Ted’s funeral.   Left to right: Rashida, Me, Lateef, Jade (Lateef’s 13-year old daughter), Aileen, Ami (Lateef’s 8-year old daughter).  Seated is Nana (Ted’s mother).  To the right are pictures of Ted on the memorial table. Looking at this picture, I wonder why we’re smiling? Perhaps we’re only smiling because that’s what people are programmed to do in front of the camera.  Nana’s face shows the real pain we’re all feeling.

I continued the work necessary to put our home on the market.  Ted and I had already decided to sell our “retirement” home.  We enjoyed it so much and it was such a peaceful home, but it was way too big for us and when Ted got sick and could no longer take care of the lawn and all of the other strong arm work, we decided we’d better move to something smaller.  So for the past year, we’d been weeding out, getting rid of things we no longer needed in anticipation of a move.  I continued on with that work.

On February 24, 2014—1 month from the date that Ted passed away, I left our home with a For Sale sign in front, got in my car and drove down to Atlanta.  The plan was to visit with the grandchildren for a couple of days, leave my car with Lateef since I would not need a car in New York, then fly up to live with Rashida.  Ted had asked me a few weeks before he passed away: “What will you do?” I understand now that that was “the conversation” that people who are dying have with their loved ones.  Most times there’s more discussion than that but Ted and I had talked about everything else so this was the only question left.  I told him that I would live with Rashida in New York.  He seemed pleased and relieved that we would be together and said “Two can live more cheaply than one”.  So I continued on with what we had planned.

Little did I know that in five days my son would pass away and within another week, our family would be attending yet another funeral.